How to become an orthopaedic surgeon (duties and skills)

Updated 4 June 2023

Orthopaedic surgeons specialise in treating conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. This specialist area of medicine requires advanced training and qualifications and those who work in orthopaedic surgery enjoy excellent salaries and a busy and rewarding work environment. If you're considering a career in medicine, you might be researching different specialisms to decide which one is right for you. In this article, we share the steps on how to become an orthopaedic surgeon and explain what to expect from this career, including necessary duties and skills, to help you decide whether it suits you.

Related: How to become an orthopaedic nurse (with skills and FAQs)

What is an orthopaedic surgeon?

An orthopaedic surgeon is a doctor of medicine who specialises in conditions affecting the bones and joints and surrounding soft tissues such as tendons, muscles and nerves. They're also known as trauma and orthopaedic surgeons since some of their work relates to treating traumatic injuries, such as fractures, sporting injuries and other conditions that occur as a result of an accident. Sometimes orthopaedic surgeons specialise in specific areas of the body, such as lower limbs, upper limbs or spine. They can also specialise in specific types of conditions, such as bone tumours, or specific types of patients, such as paediatrics.

Related: Learn How To Become a Surgeon in 7 Steps

How to become an orthopaedic surgeon

If you want to know how to become an orthopaedic surgeon, follow the steps below:

1. Attain excellent grades at GCSE and A-level

Universities expect medical school applicants to have exceptional GCSE and A-level results. It's particularly important for maths, English and science GCSE grades to be high, preferably grade 9. Most institutions ask for at least three but preferably four A-levels at grades A* to A, with biology usually compulsory and maths, physics and chemistry the other preferred subjects.

2. Complete an admissions test and interview

Medical schools ask candidates to attend an interview and admissions test to determine their suitability for a career in medicine. This is an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate values such as respect and compassion. Interviews typically take place while students are still working towards their A-levels. It can be incredibly helpful to undertake relevant work experience, such as volunteering in a care home or children's hospice, alongside which can help you demonstrate your ability to work compassionately with vulnerable people.

Related: 34 medical school interview questions (with sample answers)

3. Complete a degree in medicine

Medical school takes five years to complete and involves two years of general medical sciences study followed by three years of clinical training. Those who already have a relevant bachelor's degree, such as biology, social care, physics or maths, can complete a four-year postgraduate degree in medicine instead of a five-year undergrad degree. After completion of a medical degree, graduates gain provisional General Medical Council (GMC) registration and can begin working as junior doctors.

Related: How to become a doctor in the UK

4. Work as a junior doctor on a foundation programme

Graduates from medical school spend two years working as junior doctors to further their clinical training in a process called the foundation programme. The process gives junior doctors general clinical experience to prepare them for speciality training at a later point. The foundation programme involves six different work placements in six different settings. Senior doctors supervise juniors during this two-year period.

5. Complete specialist training in orthopaedic surgery

After completing the foundation programme, doctors progress into specialist training in an area of medicine of their choice, with trauma and orthopaedic surgery being the appropriate route for those who want to become orthopaedic surgeons. Specialist training takes at least eight years for trauma and orthopaedics but it may be longer depending on the branch of orthopaedics you want to specialise in. Technically, you remain a junior doctor until your speciality training is complete, but you may also be known as a speciality registrar during this process.

Related: 14 interesting careers in medicine with duties and salaries

6. Become a senior doctor

Following the successful completion of specialist training, you're a senior doctor and can work as an orthopaedic surgeon without any supervision. You can apply for entry to the specialist register with the GMC and work as a consultant in orthopaedic surgery. Alternatively, you may choose to become a staff grade, associate specialist and speciality (SAS) doctor. This means you have specialist knowledge of a specific area of medicine, in this case, orthopaedic surgery, without consultant status. SAS doctors tend to have more direct contact with patients than consultants.

7. Progress your career and salary

Orthopaedic surgeons often further specialise their medical knowledge while working as senior doctors by focusing on specific conditions or procedures or conducting research. They can also take part in research programmes to help advance the field of orthopaedic surgery, particularly when working in consultant positions. Most senior doctors provide training, teaching or supervision to medical students and these duties often offer higher salaries. In large hospitals, consultant orthopaedic surgeons often have managerial duties and their salaries reflect this higher level of responsibility.

Where do orthopaedic surgeons work?

Orthopaedic surgeons work in hospitals, both in medical offices and surgical theatres. They undertake routine and emergency medical work, but those who specialise in trauma are more likely to see emergency situations. Consultants may work across multiple hospitals and travel frequently. Orthopaedic surgeons who conduct research may work in laboratory or office environments in addition to hospitals.

As with most careers in medicine, the work schedule is varied and demanding yet incredibly fulfilling. Doctors often work evening and weekend shifts, particularly in roles that involve emergency work, and many doctors complete on-call shifts regularly. Consultants may enjoy more sociable hours than SAS doctors, particularly if they specialise in routine procedures rather than emergency ones.

Related: Types of surgeons (plus their roles and responsibilities)

What are the daily duties of an orthopaedic surgeon?

The duties of an orthopaedic surgeon vary depending on their work environment and specialist area, but the following are common activities you can expect from the role:

  • assessing patients to diagnose injury or conditions

  • completing surgical procedures

  • monitoring patients following surgery

  • maintaining patient records

  • providing training to medical students and junior doctors

  • liaising with different specialist doctors and consultants to treat complex medical conditions

  • leading a multidisciplinary surgical team including nurses, anaesthetists and radiographers

  • around 40% of an orthopaedic surgeon's time at work is spent in surgery.

The most common types of surgical procedures they complete include:

  • joint arthroscopy, which involves the insertion of problems into the joints to repair damaged tissues or diagnose medical problems

  • fracture repair, which involves resetting broken bones to ensure they heal correctly and retain function, using a range of techniques including immobilisation, external frames and internal pins and plates

  • arthroplasty, which is the replacement of joints such as those in the hip and knee to restore function following arthritis

  • muscle and tendon repairs to ensure body parts continue to function optimally

  • corrective procedures to improve anatomical alignment and reduce the risk of long-term complications or limited functions.

Related: The role and importance of a multidisciplinary team

What skills do orthopaedic surgeons need?

The following skills are important for a career in orthopaedic surgery:

  • Communication: to ensure good relationships with colleagues, patients and family members of patients

  • Empathy: to consider the emotional needs of patients and put them at ease during stressful moments

  • Calmness under pressure: to cope with emergency situations, complications that arise during surgery and difficult interactions with patients and family members

  • Problem-solving: to make accurate diagnoses and come up with suitable treatment plans

  • Time management and organisation: to cope with a busy schedule, a complex workload and emergency situations that demand flexibility and swift reprioritisation abilities

  • Leadership: to cope with managerial, supervisory and teaching duties

  • Physical stamina: to complete very long surgical procedures and long shifts in busy clinics

  • Attention to detail: for assessing diagnostic test results and completing intricate surgical procedures

  • Vision, hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity: to ensure precision and accuracy during surgeries

  • Resilience: to sustain motivation during a lengthy training period

  • Technical literacy: to make the most of the medical technology available for diagnostic testing and surgical procedures

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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